Doomed schooner’s crew locked in race against fiery death
Below decks, a chemical fire burned freely through the hold of the Challenger; above deck, her crew worked desperately in a hurricane windstorm to find a port they could put into before the fire broke through the deck.
By Finn J.D. John — February 7, 2016
The three-masted 279-ton schooner Challenger was in horrible shape when Captain Harriman of the Columbia River Lightship spotted her, pounding through the seas toward the madly turbulent bar of the Columbia River, on the stormy afternoon of Nov. 5, 1904. Her main sails hung in rags from the yardarms, torn to strips by the violent winds, and yet the crew made no attempt to furl the remaining canvas. Everything about the ship bespoke a desperate haste, and she was flying distress flags.
The following morning, there was no sign of the schooner; everyone assumed the powerful storms had driven her northward. Still, the captain of the bar tug Tatoosh managed to cross the bar during a fortuitously timed lull in the storm to meet up with Harriman. (The Tatoosh, by the way, was the same tug that would, seven years later, win renown for its daring rescue of 49 people aboard a steam schooner stranded on Peacock Spit.)
They soon figured out what the trouble was. They couldn’t know for sure, but it all added up. The ship had obviously been fighting her way through some terribly heavy weather, the kind of weather that can cause timbers to work loose and leaks to spring in hulls. And the Challenger, they happened to know, was carrying a load of unslaked lime.
Unslaked lime was a very dangerous cargo to have on board in a bad storm. Everything was fine until the stuff got wet; then it would react with the water in a powerful exothermic chemical reaction, releasing so much heat that it would set the nearby woodwork ablaze. And because it was water that was causing the problem in the first place, the usual techniques of shipboard firefighting would only make things worse.
In a ship full of unslaked lime whose cargo had gotten really wet, there was only one thing to do: Make for shore with all possible speed, get the crew safely off the ship, and flood the hold — that is, scuttle the ship in shallow water so that all the lime can slake at once, and hope to refloat it later and make repairs.
Of course, that can only be done if it’s actually possible to bring the burning ship into a river or estuary — something that’s notoriously hard to do off the Oregon and Washington coast during a heavy gale.
As the Oregon mariners soon learned, their fears were absolutely correct. The Challenger had put to sea on Oct. 24, carrying 3,800 barrels of Roche Harbor lime and 150,000 board feet of lumber — essentially, tinder and kindling for the slow-burning oceangoing fire that was to come.
At first, there was no sign of trouble. After a four-day spell of dead calm in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the wind kicked up — a steady, pleasant breeze out of the northeast — perfect for making rapid headway toward the vessel’s destination of San Francisco. And for 12 hours after rounding Cape Flattery, the ship made great time, getting almost all the way to the Columbia River.
But then the wind shifted to the southwest and blew up into a powerful gale, almost a hurricane. The little ship labored valiantly, tacking into the teeth of the hurricane wind, making precious little headway and being worked over hard by the weather — until Nov. 4, when Captain H. Nelson made a chilling discovery:
“I discovered smoke issuing from the cabin,” he told the Portland Morning Oregonian. “Then I knew the ship was on fire. I crowded on all sail to make port, and lost much canvas.”
This discovery happened just off the northeast corner of Oregon, shortly after the ship had passed the mouth of the Columbia. Captain Nelson brought the ship about immediately and prepared to race northward, looking for a port he could bring his burning ship into.
“At noon on the 4th, I was at Tillamook Rock, but could not get in because of the mountainous seas,” Nelson recounted. “Then I steered for the Columbia River. By this time, no man could stand at the wheel because of smoke and fumes from the lime. I signaled for a Columbia River tug, but the bar was too rough for one to come out.”
Every minute counted in the Challenger’s race against time. The fire, starved for oxygen deep in the ship’s sealed hold, was burning slow and hot, like the fire in a good woodstove. At any moment, though, it could break through the ship’s deck, letting oxygen pour in with the aid of the roaring wind to fan the smoldering flames beneath. When that happened, the crew would have a very short period of time — mere minutes, in a worst-case scenario — in which to take to the boats and hope for the best. And lifeboats did not fare very well in storms like the one then blowing the Challenger around.
In desperation, the Challenger headed north, trying to make Willapa Bay on the coast of Washington — where even if the seas proved impassable, the Challenger would have more of a chance if a last-ditch desperate beaching run were necessary.
At Willapa Bay, the tug Astoria, seeing the smoke and the distress signals, charged to the rescue. In crossing the bar, the doughty tug dug into a massive comber that swept across her deck, knocking Captain Chris Olsen down and leaving him badly injured; but his tug managed to make it across the bar and get a line on the now-visibly-smoking Challenger.
Back across the bar the tug steamed, with its stricken rescuee wallowing behind, and up into the channel of the Willapa River to South Bend. And that’s where Captain Nelson learned how close he and his crew had come to disaster:
“Two hours later, flames broke through the cabin,” Nelson recounted, “and the schooner had to be scuttled.”
The ship was sent to the bottom in 15 feet of river water, quenching the smoking lime and extinguishing the blazing lumber in a spectacular cloud of smoky steam. Meanwhile, Captain Nelson and his exhausted crew had been hustled off to the local hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation, burns and other injuries sustained in their desperate race with time and fire. They also got a good drink for the first time since their fresh water tanks had been breached in the hurricane six days before.
As for the Challenger, the following day inspectors declared her a loss. The storm had done enough damage that she wasn’t worth refloating. So at low tide, when her decks were above the water, salvage crews scrambled over her stripping off everything of value; and the remains were then dynamited to prevent them from becoming a hazard to navigation.
(Sources: Gibbs, James Jr. Pacific Graveyard. Portland: Binford, 1950; Portland Morning Oregonian archives, 07-08 Nov 1904)